Marqués de Riscal turns a corner


Don Francisco Javier Hurtado de Amézaga (left) was born in 1947, an important wine year both for both wines and wine people. The current Marquis of Riscal, he's known as Paco, a common Spanish nickname for those called Francisco. He is the winemaker and represents the family in the Marqués de Riscal winery in Rioja, the oldest firm in the appellation. There is an old rivalry with Marqués de Murrieta, but that's another story. It was as long ago as 1858 that Camilo Hurtado de Amézaga, Marqués de Riscal, diplomat and writer, started a winery in Rioja. He had been living in Bordeaux since 1836 so he decided to experiment with French methods and varieties on his estate at Elciego. He built the winery following the French model and techniques, being the first in Spain to use barriques. His wines soon started winning prizes, were the favourites of King Alfonso XII, and became so popular that, in order to avoid fakes, he had to invent the wire-netting that would make it impossible to extract the cork without breaking it.

The company took on some shareholders in the 1940s, mainly family friends, so the operation has been maintained almost as a family affair until today. Their Gehry-designed hotel is of course well known, a tourist attraction and a gastronomic destination. The view from the rooms is amazing. You see the church from your bed. 'When Gehry was here he asked me how tall the Elciego church was. When I told him, he replied that our hotel would be one metre lower', explained Hurtado. They also have a spa with vinotherapy – which I haven't yet had time to experience, so far I prefer wine on the inside of my body than on the outside – and a one-Michelin-starred restaurant run by Francis Paniego of Echaurren restaurant fame, the most famous chef in Rioja, who received the National Gastronomy Award for best chef in 2011. The restaurant offers the traditional dishes of Rioja plus some modern creations based on traditional products of the region such as a red-wine caviar or a salt-crusted roast beetroot.

Recently their latest developments have been towards increasing the quality of their grapes. In July 2010 they acquired from Pernod Ricard (who had bought it from Domecq) the Marqués de Arienzo brand and around 300 hectares of land and vineyards. Today Riscal own a total of almost 500 hectares of vineyards, all of them around Elciego and Laguardia, and control a further 950 ha belonging to long-term suppliers, all in Elciego and surrounding villages.

I was invited there recently to taste some wines. 'We'll taste nine new wines and nine old wines', announced Hurtado de Amézaga. He's very happy with the way the last three vintages from Riscal are developing in barrel, and he feels each year is superior to the previous one. I mentioned in Spain – the good, the bad and the ugly the shift in style in Rioja, which started some time in the mid 2000s, a return to the traditions of yesteryear, a focus on the vineyards and the terroir. In the case of Marqués de Riscal, it happened with the 2010 vintage, and the trio of 2010, 2011 and 2012 undoubtedly represent my favourite recent wines from Riscal. I had the chance to taste three wines from each of those years, Marqués de Riscal Reserva, Finca Torrea and Barón de Chirel.

The future: 2010, 2011 and 2012

Marqués de Riscal Reserva is their flagship label, the classic wine from the winery, the one representing traditional style, and also considerable volume, around 5 million bottles. Finca Torrea is a recent wine – launched with the 2006 vintage. Here the idea is to make an approachable, more 'modern' wine if you like, using 100% new French oak, where the wine is aged for 14 months as they want the fruit to be in the forefront. Barón de Chirel, is a return to the traditional wines produced at the winery with a significant percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon 'but Barón de Chirel is always about elegance', according to Hurtado. What has changed in Chirel is volume: while production was measured in six-digit figures before, 'we now make only 20.000 bottles on average, and in vintages like 2011 there will be only 12.000 bottles'. The old Marqués de Riscal wines called RM (Reserva Médoc) could be considered the ancestors of Barón de Chirel. They were special wines, never sold or released to the market, they were kept in the winery – that's why they have so many bottles of them! – and made with a portion of Cabernet Sauvignon. In the good vintages, they kept as many as 30 or 40 barrels of a special blend that they called Reserva Médoc because of its varietal composition.

Torrea is the name of the property which surrounds the winery and the modern Gehry Hotel at Elciego. The grapes used for this wine are all sourced from here. It's a blend of Tempranillo with a little bit of Graciano. 'We never really had any Garnacha in Elciego. There was some Graciano and maybe a tiny bit of Mazuelo. But the Cabernet Sauvignon has been here for over 150 years now, and it has adapted very well'. This is an old discussion and given that I'm not a great defender of international (read French) varieties planted everywhere, I must admit that the Cabernet from Riscal has its own style and works quite well in blends, especially in the Reserva Médoc bottling that we tasted.

For the Reserva I preferred 2010 over 2011, while in the case of Finca Torrea I favoured 2011 over 2010. Chirel 2010 was very Atlantic, fresh and austere, while 2011 was clearly Mediterranean, ripe and exuberant. The 2012 is so young and raw that I'd rather wait before giving any verdict. It was for sure an unusual vintage; a lot of people called it weird. The extreme drought and heat shut down the vines for a while, which resulted in alcohol and ripeness that is actually lower than other vintages. We tasted a potential 'Reserva Gehry from 2012', a very special wine, a blend of grapes from different vineyards, all of them over 100 years of age. Surprisingly this wine is more accessible and less wild than other 2012s. For Francisco Hurtado de Amézaga, 'this could be a wine like the ones from the old times: old vineyards, low yields, natural ripeness and concentration'.

Blast from the past

The first vintage for Marqués de Riscal was 1862, and they still have some bottles from that year… and every year since then! 'Old vines are those planted before 1970. After that everything changed'. He is, of course, talking about the huge increase in land under vine, the explosion in yields and the decline in the quality of the vineyards, which were no longer relegated to the poorer soils where they produced high-quality grapes, but were planted on more fertile soils when bodegas were looking for quantity rather than quality.

The library at Marqués de Riscal contains what must be the biggest collection of old Rioja in the world. In a dark, damp cellar behind bars lie thousands of bottles covered with dust and sometimes a bit of mould. 'We have a problem here', explained Hurtado de Amézaga, 'which is called the cork moth. This moth lays its eggs on the corks… and all of a sudden, one day we enter the cellar and we smell vinegar. That's why we have to recork. Not everything, but we recork some vintages. We do it under very controlled conditions and always in the presence of the Consejo Regulador [the appellation regulatory body]'.

These old bottles are opened (or should I say decapitated?) with red-hot Disgorging_an_old_bottleport tongs, an operation always carried out by Paco with the help of an employee, more often than not dressed in the traditional worker's blue overalls, in ch⁞arge of applying some cold water with a paintbrush. The thermal shock, applying extreme heat and immediately afterwards cold to the neck of the bottle, encourages a clean break in the bottle neck. You can then pour the wine from the neckless bottle and extract the cork intact from the glass.

Hurtado de Amézaga was one of the pioneers in going to Bordeaux to study oenology in the 1960s so, when opening these old relics and on being asked about the differences between the wines of today and those from the old times, he can say things like 'in the old days, thank God, there was no oenologist'.

On the subject of grape quality, Hurtado was very clear: 'quality is highly correlated to colour. And don't get me wrong, I'm not talking about the colour in the wine, but the colour potential in the grape, which is intimately related to ripeness. One thing is that the grapes have more colour compounds, but then you don't necessarily get a darker wine. That's something that depends on the kind of vinification that you do. We analyse the grapes and take decisions for harvesting, fermenting, making lots and so on based on colour'.

Here, and in contrast with other traditional bodegas where wines might be aged for decades in barrel, the wines were released five years after the vintage. 'We had a non-vintage wine called simply fifth year, which was released at five years of age, and then we had the special wine that was called reserva, before the official category existed, and that was a single-vintage wine'. They kept a considerable amount of bottles for themselves. They still have 6,000 bottles of the 1956, for instance, and 'until relatively recently, we had around 70,000 bottles from the 1950s'. (See Riscal start to clear out those cellars.)

We discuss white wine a little, which is something they never really produced in Rioja. 'Of course, we made a little bit of white, mainly mass wine for the village priest. We have some old bottles somewhere, I believe from 1952'.

The first mission of Hurtado de Amézaga once he returned from his studies in France was to find a suitable region in which to make white wine. 'After visiting all the regions in Spain, I was determined to find out about Rueda, because I had heard that they produced great white wines for local consumption, while the traditional wines from the appellation were fortified, a kind of copy of Jerez, Dorado and Pálido, some of them aged in glass demijohns under the sun'. That's how, together with Émile Peynaud, they invented the Rueda appellation and its fresh whites made with Verdejo (and Sauvignon Blanc) as we know them today. 'We started in the early 1970s and at that time I spent more time in Rueda than in Rioja. Today my son Luis is in charge of the winemaking there and lives in Rueda'. Rueda is some 275 kilometres away from Elciego, a completely different wine region, close to the Duero river (see this map).

While he was opening the bottles, we discussed the old vintages, and the differences between the wines of old and the ones from today. The moment the 1883 was opened was magic. 'These old wines are unbelievable', Hurtado de Amézaga says. 'I'm almost sure none of them fermented all the sugar, and the malolactic was never completed.' It's hard to believe the 1929 is only 9% alcohol (and even the warmer vintages were only around 11%) and has a pH of 3.07. 'The analytics for these wines are mindboggling. And today we worry so much about phenolic maturity and if the alcoholic and malolactic fermentations are fully carried out…'

Of course, the 1883 is a pre-phylloxera wine. 'These old vintages before phylloxera are special. They have a special sweetness and intensity that is hard to explain. When the vines had their own roots things worked differently'. He took a glass with the first wine out of the recently disgorged bottle. It felt slightly warm in the nose from the proximity of the tongs. He smiled and passed the glass around. I think I laughed hysterically when I first put my nose in the glass.

My tasting notes on wines from the 2010s back to the extraordinary 1883 will be published later this week.